A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Science, political spin and the media.....

Patricia Hewitt, the UK Trade and Industry Secretary, has called for greater public engagement with science: 'Public "must engage with science"' (BBC Science/Nature Online News, March 14).

This comes after a public poll which showed that only 40% of UK adults consider themselves well-informed about science. But, more significantly, seven out of 10 adults think that the media sensationalises science issues.

The latter is hardly surprising when one considers the recent disgraceful performances of the BBC, ITV and Sky over topics like 'global warming', not to mention the fact that this week is 'Apocalypse Now' on the Beeb (see: 'The BBC and the end of the world... before Thursday, of course', Sunday blog, below).

The overhyping of 'doomsday science' does science no favours. Science is exciting, but, in the main, offers a remarkably optimistic view of the world and how we can respond to the inexorabilities of change and evolution. However, the fact that most media science is produced and presented by arts and humanities graduates is a major problem, as these tend, by nature, to turn science into disaster scenarios, from 'global warming' and biotechnology to grey goo - it is always Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood, rather than Galileo and Harry Kroto. Television is unquestionably the prime culprit, with science being more thoughtfully presented on radio.

I am also increasingly wary of governments actively 'promoting' science sensu lato, because this inevitably leads to two things: the politicizing of which science is accepted and the re-direction of funding to projects that 'serve the state' as currently perceived politically and economically. By contrast, good science will often be a thorn in the side of the state, and, indeed, of all those who seek to impose an imprimatur on us.

Moreover, political lecturing and 'do-gooding' via 'science' frequently backfires and puts the public off science. Last week, I believe that the ever-so earnest 'Earth Centre' located outside Doncaster in Yorkshire - only six years ago lauded by Tony Blair as "greater" than 'The Dome' - failed ignominiously, taking with it some £36 million of our cash. The hope had been to attract 500,000 visitors a year; in 2004, I hear that only 30,000 made it through the turnstiles. People are not going to fork out hard-earned cash to be harangued on the needs for a compost toilet or on the evils of their family day out in the car. Indeed, a survey just published shows that the most despised UK tax is petrol duty.

Of course, critical science needs all our support through better teaching in schools and through dynamic research in universities and in industry. What it doesn't require, however, is pietistic manipulation by politicians in support of their own heavily-loaded agenda.

Thus, our saying of the week:"Beware ministers bearing plaudits."

Philip, off to broadcast, balanced and fair as ever! Radio, of course - much better. All this ties in with National Science Week in the UK, which began on 11 March and runs to 20 March, and which is organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA).

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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